In his mid-teens, Nigel Farage thought seriously about joining the army. He had the shiniest boots in Dulwich College’s Combined Cadet Force, relished the uniform, the boozy camaraderie. He even had an interview for a three-year commission. Yet he ruled out a military career, concluding he’d be no good at following orders.
Herein lies Farage’s central contradiction: he loves the brass buttons, epaulettes and blazers, the wood-panelled clubs and Union Jack pomp of the establishment. Yet he is happiest poking and provoking, mooning through the window, rather than sitting at the table. Farage, decades before the rise of social media, was always a consummate troll.
In his account of Farage’s life and career, Michael Crick ranks him alongside Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair, Alex Salmond and Boris Johnson as the most significant politicians of our time. Farage won two (European) elections leading two different parties (Ukip and the Brexit Party); he changed the course of Britain, if not a whole continent. Yet he is different from the others in two key respects: he worked from outside the mainstream and had no meaningful desire to lead.
The only issue he cared about at Ukip, Crick notes, was Europe – the hot-button topic that revved up a crowd. When the party put up a full general election slate of candidates and had to produce and promote a manifesto, he delegated to others its pub-bore charter on grammar schools and health tourism. Ukip was most effective when led by a grey suit (Roger Knapman or Jeffrey Titford, anyone?), while Farage – better at debate than details – let viewers assume he was leader.
It’s fortunate for the citizens of Salisbury or South Thanet (and the five other seats he contested) that Farage never won. He’d have sucked at constituency work. In 2010 he challenges John Bercow in Buckingham, convinced he can topple the much-mocked Speaker. Instead, he finds that voters love Bercow: he answers their planning or parking problems by return of post. Farage is amazed.
Paradoxically, being an MEP suited him perfectly: he was the definitive outsider, the stone in Strasbourg’s shoe. He played the small boy shaming the nude emperor. When Herman Van Rompuy, then president of the European Council, addresses the European parliament in2010, Farage notes he has the “charisma of a damp rag”, then rails: “I would like to ask you, president: who voted for you?… And what mechanism do the peoples of Europe have to remove you?” Dutch MEPs seated near Farage were told by their leaders not to laugh at his speeches because they’d be spotted on TV. When Britain finally leaves Europe, one MEP remarks that democracy is diminished without anyone to tweak the EU’s lush tail.
One wonders how Farage would have handled being prime minister, though perhaps the answer now sits in No 10. Farage shares Johnson’s broad-brush thinking, his belief that rules don’t apply to him, his omnivorous sexual appetite. Yet with a fondness for PFLs – Proper Farage Lunches (or Proper F***ing Lunches) – and all-night Brussels binges, and an ability to banter with bankers and butchers alike, Farage is more gregarious than Johnson who, for all his woes, hates parties.
Crick offers a 360-degree view of the Brexit saga. Still, this feels like overworked ground. More intriguing is his picture of Farage the man. What a picaresque life! Three near-death experiences: knocked down by a car, testicular cancer (which leaves him with one ball) and the 2010 election-day plane crash when his light aircraft is tangled up in a Ukip banner. Farage closes his eyes on impact, expecting death, but walks away. He lives with constant back pain and had to give up golf; the pilot later kills himself.
Remainers may loathe this humanising of a hate figure, who they’ll know as a xenophobic monster smirking beside his referendum day poster of a group of migrants next to the words “breaking point”. Yet Crick is fair, interrogating the worst rumours – that Farage (and indeed his father) flirted with the National Front. Was the fact he shared initials with the fascist organisation, and scrawled them over school chalkboards, a wind-up or a reflection of his views? Crick reprints a letter by a teacher appalled that Farage was being made a prefect, noting his “professed racist and neo-fascist views” and how he sang Hitler youth songs on a cadet camp. Farage has said he was trolling left-wing teachers.
Yet Crick agrees with Farage that Ukip’s rise sucked oxygen from the growing British National Party. Better an insurgent populist movement of golf club blazers than bovver boots.
What an odd boy young Nigel was, growing up in the London-Kent borderlands, foraging nearby aristocratic estates for detritus of the past: old bottles, fossils, bits of clay pipe. When working as a metal trader in the City, he organised “bottlefield” tours in northern France where friends combed for bullet cases then got bladdered on local wine.
His father was a stockbroker – a natty, charming alcoholic whose addiction cost him his trading licence (regained in sobriety) and his marriage. His mother enjoyed posing nude with carefully positioned bouquets for charity calendars. Little Nigel was abrasive, a lone provocateur rather than a gang leader. Keen on debate, if he wasn’t picked to take one side, he’d convincingly argue the opposite. Being heard was the buzz.
With this talent, plus his phenomenal energy, which meant he could drink all night and still campaign hard the next day, Farage could have succeeded in a major political party. Instead he ended up in the margins, among the Eurosceptic odd bods, mainly awkward tweedy men, and one notable trans woman, Nikki Sinclaire (who, as an MEP, became Britain’s first trans parliamentarian). Internecine scraps are endless, petty and often hilarious. Ukip’s founder, the academic Alan Sked, moans that Farage is an “O-level man” who can’t spell and turns up pissed. There is a putsch in which one Ukip faction changes the office locks, so Farage has the new ones forced. Ukip’s greatest stroke of luck is when the rival anti-EU Referendum Party collapses after its rich founder James Goldsmith dies.
Every time the party recruits a “name”, such as Buster Mottram (the NF-supporting tennis player), Robert Kilroy-Silk (the TV presenter and former Labour MP) or Neil Hamilton (Tory sleaze-monkey), there is a brief honeymoon, before a falling out. Even Farage’s best boozing mate, Godfrey Bloom, is coldly dumped. After the amazing feat of getting elected, Ukip MEPs defect in huffs. The moral of Ukip history is that a party of cussed, libertarian egotists is unlikely to pull as one.
Then there are the women. Farage’s first wife Clare, who nursed him after his car accident; his German second wife Kirsten; the long-term mistress Annabelle Fuller, who worked in his office; Laure Ferrari, the gamine Frenchwoman, aka “the love of his life”. They fall for him mainly because he’s funny. Farage favours the more Rubenesque lady, telling Fuller after their first tryst that her “arse had looked amazing in the moonlight”. Like many alpha men, it is only with women that he can unwind (something he shares with Johnson, who has virtually no male friends).
After all the Brexit battles are over, Crick suggests there is a sense of loss. In victory Farage has destroyed his own raison d’être. That serotonin hit from stirring supporters or inflaming enemies, who will supply it now? So we leave him, aged 57, out on the Channel counting migrant dinghies, and fighting the culture wars from his GB News sofa. While the conventional career journey is from journalist to politician, it is only natural that Farage the troll nonpareil has gone the other way.
One Party After Another: The Disruptive Life of Nigel Farage
Simon & Schuster, 608pp, £25
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Janice Turner writes for the Times
This article appears in the 02 Feb 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Going Under